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The Welcome Judge

Let the trees of the forest sing, let them sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. 1 Chronicles 16.33

How strange that verse sounds to our twenty-first century ears. Not the concept of trees singing: I don’t have a problem with that. No, it’s the idea that God’s approaching judgment should be a matter for exuberant rejoicing. But that is certainly what it is in the mind of King David not only here in 1 Chronicles 16 but in Psalm 96.11-13 also:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.

judgeWhy would anyone be glad at the thought of God coming to judge the earth – whether in righteousness or not? Who in their right mind would relish the thought of being in the dock at what John Wesley called “The Great Assize” – that great criminal trial at the end of time? Of course, David’s adultery with Bathsheba had yet to take place, as had his arranging for her husband to be killed; but surely there were already things in David’s life that he wouldn’t want to be brought to trial over by a holy God? Why was he so keen to find himself in Heaven’s dock?

He wasn’t; and the fact is that no such scenario was ever in his mind. In these Scriptures, the setting for God’s judgment is not an “Assize” at all. There is no dock. The proceedings he evisages are not criminal but civil and David sees himself and the rest of us as plaintiffs not prisoners – as becomes abundantly clear when we read Psalm 35.23-24:

Awake, and rise to my defence!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.

The court that David has in mind is a court of social justice where, for instance, the cries of people working as little more than slaves in the sweat shops of Bangladesh to provide cheap clothing for wealthy Westerners will at last be heard. Where the terrified tears of asylum seekers bundled back on planes to face rape, torture and death will be wiped away as those who shed them are given safety and refuge. We need go no further than the parable of the unjust judge that Jesus told to see this sort of judgment at work:

He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’” (Luke 18.2-5).

What was the widow’s complaint? We don’t know. Maybe her husband had bequeathed to her an olive tree on a scrap of land, but maybe her next-door neighbour, a rich and powerful Sadducee, had re-drawn his boundaries so take in her meagre inheritance and leave her with nothing. “Not interested. Clear off!” might have been his response when she had fallen at his feet and wept and pleaded with him. “You’re nothing. You’re dirt. Nobody’s going to listen to the likes of you.” But the judge did – eventually; and the widow had her scrap of land restored to her. That‘s the kind of judgment that David awaits and that he knows will have the trees singing for joy in the day that it arrives.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr Beaver tries to explain to the children (newly arrived in Narnia) who Aslan (the great Christ-figure of C S Lewis’s Narnia books) actually is. “It’s all in the old rhyme,” he says:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrow will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight.” That is the judgment David had in mind.

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